Home away from home

W e love Phnom Penh. There’s something about the energy of this city, its vibrant alive-ness that somehow walks both sides of the line between relaxed/carefree and anything goes/buzzing, that keeps us coming back. Even though our planned journey through Asia was severely interrupted, we still ensured we would have at least a couple of days in our home away from home to enjoy its charms before heading onwards to Europe.

Like everyone else, on our first trip to Phnom Penh we did the obligatory (and very moving) visits to S-21 and The Killing Fields, went to the Russian Market and walked along the waterfront. It was on the second visit that we delved a little deeper into the less-touristed (but still very western) parts of town and discovered the joys of 240 Street and 278 Street. This time around, with only two days and nights to fill, we knew exactly what we wanted to do.

First up: accommodation. A tuk-tuk driver had introduced us to the Phnom Penh City Hotel last time, and its convenient location on 278 Street coupled with decent rooms at a great price made it a winner. This time around it’s even better, offering the same low price ($15 a night) and now with added wifi.

Second up: Red Apron on 240 Street. What a purler of a wine bar/restaurant this is! Offering an excellent range of fine wines at very low prices by world standards, coupled with superb food and service in a flashy modern setting, dinner here was one of the main things we were looking forward to in Phnom Penh. Okay, who am I kidding… it was THE main thing we were looking forward here, and the mere idea of it kept us focussed during the long weeks before arrival! The wine list is strong on French wines, including a good number of top shelf choices at prices less than half what you’d pay at a comparable place in Australia or Europe. Last time we went a little nuts on some of the finer choices, this time we set a lower (but still generous) limit and our first night’s meal was a winner. A glass each of Planeta chardonnay followed by a bottle of Chateau d’Issan 2004 from Bordeaux went brilliantly with the succession of small plates of food chosen from the extensive menu. We even met a Frenchwoman who might let us rent her Paris apartment when we visit there in September. Un nuit par excellance!

Third up: Bliss Boutique. After extensive field trials, this massage and spa boutique on 240 Street comes up trumps as one of the best places to get a laying of the hands in Asia. Of course the massages are excellent – especially the extravagant four-hand number, where two masseuses work in unison – but the whole experience is enhanced by its location in a luxuriously restored and tranquil French villa. We had wanted to save this pleasure for the day we left, but as they are closed on Mondays we settled for a Sunday treat instead. Yep, sometimes you’ve just gotta take the knocks and keep smiling…

The rest of our two days was filled with smaller tasks that we knew could be completed here. Kristen has obtained her supply of sunglasses here annually for the past two years, so we knew exactly where to go to get some more. Getting our tuk-tuk driver – who was on retainer for several hours on our last day of rushing around – to stop near the FCC, we walked slowly to the corner knowing that within seconds a sunglasses seller would approach with a tray full of goodies to choose from. Sure enough, said seller did indeed approach and within minutes Kristen had two new pairs complete with extra carry case, all for $10. A year’s supply? Perhaps not, but it’s a start!

To round out our lightning visit we revisited Japanese-Cambodian restaurant Happa for lunch (on 278 Street, still good), tried to go to the Pool Bar on 278 Street only to find it closed for renovations, and made a late night journey to Equinox bar (again on 278 Street) for post-dinner drinks. No visit to Equinox is complete without a completely random meeting with a wacky stranger, and we hit the jackpot with a 52-year-old Korean man called Song. His greying hair, pulled back with a headband, and open face made him look very Japanese, and we made the early faux pas of asking him if he was indeed from Japan. He replied no but very good-naturedly, explained his origins and within seconds had somehow segued into how he is a drummer and that his Dad beat him so hard for being a drummer when he was a teenager that his arm was permanently damaged. Complete with a demonstration of how his arm doesn’t bend properly anymore. He was proud of his perseverance as a drummer in the face of such opposition (it was apparently an hour-long beating); clearly South Korea in the 1960s and 1970s was a very strict place to grow up!

Song then talked a lot about his favourite drummers in between asking us about our travels, and he was depressingly insightful about the conditions of the average working person in Cambodia today. He’s involved in the production and export of fashion garments and has lived in Phnom Penh for several years, so his comments had the weight of truth about them. Suddenly more than an hour had gone by, and Song was up and off with a smile.

We would have loved to have spent longer in Phnom Penh, but we left happy in the knowledge that we’d done everything we wanted to this time around. More than enough, actually: did I mention that we made a second dinner visit to Red Apron because it’s so bloody good?!?

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Born in New Zealand, now living in Australia. When I'm not travelling, that is... Though I have travelled quite a bit before, 2012 is the first time that I've taken a year off to roam the world. Spending this time with Kristen exploring some of this planet's finest sights has been the best decision I've ever made. Who knows what 2013 will bring?

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